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Changing Times | A brief history of sea island Selsey – Part one

The NAME Selsey originates from the Anglo-Saxon Seolesige meaning ‘seal island’.


Archaeological evidence in the area has highlighted activity around the Selsey Peninsula dating to the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic eras, with the discovery of a number of different flint implements as well as Neolithic pottery. This suggests the area was a prime location for early hunter gatherers.


In 1909 the discovery of the remains of a mammoth shocked Selsey residents.


Reports in the Sussex Daily News recorded ‘A discovery of considerable interest and importance was made at Selsey on Tuesday by James Lawrence, a fisherman, of North Road. At low tide he found opposite to Mr H A Smith’s bungalow, embedded in a mass of red clay, the remains of what was undoubtedly a mammoth, measuring about 30 feet in length’.


The remains were of a late steppe mammoth, Mammuthus trogontherii, probably roaming the earth between 243,000 and 191,000 years ago.


The excavations at Medmerry before the Environment Agency’s managed realignment project uncovered numerous features dating from the Bronze Age. These suggested an important Bronze Age settlement was located in the area. At the time, the area was a protected lagoon.


Features discovered include three large and two small circular structures, enclosures and field systems, water management features and funerary remains.


A medieval fish weir was also discovered during the fieldwork. The impressive wooden structure was around 150m long and was designed to funnel and trap fish.


Documentary evidence of Selsey is first recorded by Bede in his account of the conversion of the South Saxons to Christianity by St Wilfrid. Wilfrid, Bishop of York, having been exiled from his northern see (the bishop’s seat), was welcomed to Sussex by the local king of the South Saxons, and according to


Bede was gifted 87 hides of land at ‘Seal Island’ for a monastery.


Following the Norman Conquest, the English church underwent a radical reorganisation and in 1075 the see moved from Selsey to Chichester. Selsey remained in the ownership of the Bishop of Chichester. However, it never regained its importance as a religious centre and, instead, activity centred on agriculture and fishing.


A survey of the Bishop’s manor completed in 1327 shows that the three field system of cultivation was in use at this time. Under this system, land was divided into three large fields.


One was planted in the autumn with winter wheat or rye; the second field was planted with other crops such as peas, lentils, or beans; and the third was left fallow. This allowed the soil of that field to regain its lost nutrients.


Selsey Manor, to the north of St Peter’s Church, remained under the ownership of the bishops until, in 1561, Queen Elizabeth forced the bishop at the time, William Barlow, to surrender a number of manors in exchange for various rectories and tithes.


St Wilfrid’s chapel was built at Church Norton in the 13th century. It remained the parish church until the late 19th century. It is believed to be the site of Wilfrid’s original monastery in Selsey, however there is no definitive evidence for this and the location is often deliberated.


In 1864, the nave of the church was demolished and the masonry was reused in the building of a new church, St Peter’s. As well as this masonry the new church also incorporated the early Norman Purbeck marble font.


For centuries the main occupations in the village were farming, fishing and smuggling. The area remained relatively isolated up until the end of the 18th century. The present day peninsula was in fact an island for a long time, with its own ferry, ferry house and ferryman.


In 1661, it is recorded that the ferryman was paid ‘four bushels of barley’ and was allowed to collect a halfpenny from every traveller. It wasn’t until 1809 that the causeway was completed, linking Selsey with the mainland.


In 1819, the passing of the Enclosure Act transformed the area surrounding


Selsey, permitting the enclosure of the land into large, rectangular fields.


Further transformation of the village occurred during the 19th century, when Selsey expanded and developed as a seaside resort.


This expansion was helped by the opening of the Hundred of Manhood and Selsey Tramway in 1897 which connected Selsey with Chichester. Delays to the service were common, caused by broken down engines, crashes, animals on the line, floods and other weather related issues. The engines were often second-hand and many were past their best. The line finally closed in 1935, in part because bus services like Southdown were more reliable.


Next week’s article will look at the development of Selsey from the First World War to present day.


By Amy Roberts, collections officer and Pat Saunders, volunteer at The Novium Museum


Posted in Lifestyle.